In seventeenth century New England no respectable person questioned that a woman’s place was in the home. By the laws of Massachusetts as by those of England a married woman could hold no property of her own. When she became a wife, she gave up everything to her husband and devoted herself exclusively to managing his household. Henceforth her duty was to “keep at home, educating her children, keeping and improving what is got by the industry of the man.”()
However, this view went beyond the Puritans and was the perspective of all branches of the church and a central aspect of Western Christian culture. For example, Lenski, the eminent Lutheran commentator, stated that the phrase “keepers at home” indicates domestic responsibility and that the home is the place of a married woman’s work; she is a “housekeeper” who dispenses “all good things in this domain.” ()
Nonetheless, in accord with the spirit of our age that looks in disdain upon the notion that the sphere of a married woman’s work is her home, many in the church have rejected the earlier consensus understanding of “keepers at home.” Instead, to be “keepers at home” is interpreted to mean that a wife and mother is “to be busy at home” (NIV), i.e., she “should not be idle or derelict in fulfilling home duties.” () In other words, “keepers at home” does not define the married woman’s calling or the sphere of her work, but is simply an admonition not to neglect her domestic duties. Therefore, a wife and mother may pursue a career outside of the home — as a lawyer, teacher, sales clerk, etc. — as long as she fulfills her responsibilities in the home.
The difference between the traditional interpretation of “keepers at home” and the modern version is considerable. While the traditional interpretation established the home as the sphere of a married woman’s work and calling, the modern understanding says that the term does nothing of the kind. While the traditional interpretation defined a married woman’s “career” as homemaking, the modern view teaches that a married woman may pursue a career outside of the home as long as she does not neglect homemaking. While the traditional interpretation calls the woman to focus her energy, time, and talents in the home in the service of her family, the modern view says that she is not so “restricted” and may go outside the home for her employment. Which is the correct understanding? It is our belief that the traditional interpretation is the correct one. We base this opinion on the meaning of the Greek word translated “keepers at home,” and on the wider Biblical teaching on the roles of the wife and mother.
The Meaning of “Keepers at Home”
The Greek word translated “keepers at home” is oikourous. This word is derived from two Greek words. The first, oikos, means a house, a dwelling, or, by metonymy, a household or family. The second, ouros, refers to a keeper, watcher or guardian, i.e., one who has the oversight and responsibility for something. Thus, the basic significance of oikourous is that of a “housekeeper,” that is, one who watches over a household and family, seeing to it that all members are cared for, and all things maintained in good order. Oikourous is used only in the New Testament in Titus 2:5; therefore, in seeking to accurately discern its meaning we must look to the Greek literature of the New Testament era. There, the word oikourous meant watching or keeping the house. It was employed in reference to a watchdog and to a rooster, but more germane to the context of Titus 2:5, oikourous also meant keeping at home, and was employed as a substantive, “housekeeper,” to indicate the mistress of the house. Furthermore, it was specifically used in praise of a good wife. Interestingly, oikourous is utilized contemptuously of a man who refused to go out to war, designating him a “stay-at-home” man. ()
The verbal form, oikoureo, meant to watch or keep the house. It was used of women to indicate those who were at home to watch over the affairs of a household, and of men to designate those who stayed at home to avoid military service. () Other closely related words such as 1) oikourema, meant keeping the house and staying at home, and was used to refer to women as the “stay-at-homes”; 2) oikouria, referred to women as those employed in the work of housekeeping; 3) oikourios, meant the wages or rewards for the work of keeping the house, but also designated, significantly, keeping children within the doors of the house, i.e., keeping them at home. ()
On the basis of this word study, it is concluded that oikourous was primarily used in the positive sense to indicate both the nature and sphere of a married woman’s work. The nature of her work is to manage the affairs of her household, and the sphere of her work is the home. It is important to note that oikourous and its cognates all included the idea of staying at home. Therefore, we believe that the “keepers at home” are those who stay at home for the purpose of managing their households. Paul’s admonition is definite: Let the older women teach the younger women to remain within the sphere of their own households so that they might properly attend to their duties of caring for their family and managing its everyday affairs.
The Biblical Roles of a Wife and Mother
The fact that “keepers at home” refers to the married woman’s responsibility to stay at home to care for her family is confirmed when the Biblical teaching on the roles of a wife and mother are considered. Her role is so vital to the well-being of her husband and children, her responsibilities in keeping the home so demanding, that it would not be possible to properly fulfill them unless she devotes herself entirely to them. She cannot do what God has called her to do unless she abides at home.
God assigns three specific roles to the wife and mother. First, she is to be the helper of her husband. “And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him” (Gen. 2:18). Here is revealed the primary purpose of the woman in relation to her husband. The Hebrew word “help” (ezer) comes from two roots: the first meaning to rescue or save, and the second meaning to be strong. It indicates one who is able (has what it takes) to come to the aid of someone who is in need. Thus, God created the woman so that she would be able to come to the aid of the man and be his support and help. The word “meet” means corresponding to, suitable, or comparable to. The woman will be man’s counterpart equal to him mentally, spiritually, and physically. Note carefully that “meet” is a word of essence or nature, while “help” is a word of function. This means that in essence the woman is equal to man, but in function she is subordinate to the man — she is to assist and support him in his calling; or, her calling is to help enable him to be successful in his calling.
As Calvin states: “Now, since God assigns the woman as a help to the man, he not only prescribes to wives the rule of their vocation, to instruct them in their duty, but he also pronounces that marriage will really prove to men the best support in life. We may therefore conclude, that the order of nature implies that the woman should be the helper of man.” ) Other important Scriptures indicate that the woman was made for the man to be his helper, and that his success in due measure is dependent on her love and support (1 Cor. 11:7-9; Tit. 2:4; Pr. 12:4; 18:22; 31:10-12, 23).
Second, the wife is to bear and nurture the children. The bearing and raising of children is one of the central purposes of marriage (Gen. 1:28). By God’s creative design, the woman is the primary caregiver for a child; she is called and equipped by him to nurture the life and soul of a child. She was created with the marvelous capacity of conceiving and carrying life within her. After birth, she is prepared by God to nurse the child and provide the tender love and affection the child so greatly needs. In conjunction with her duty to help her husband, the wife has the great privilege and high calling to nurture the children of the marriage. The English word “nurture” is a beautiful word to describe a mother’s role. It means to nourish both body and soul. It refers to the tasks of feeding and educating a child.
The Scripture is definite in regard to the motherly responsibilities of the woman. When Paul discusses the qualifications for those widows who will receive support from the church, he gives a list of “good works” that should be present in the report concerning her. The first good work on the list is “if she has brought up children” (1 Tim. 5:10). The Greek word translated “brought up” (tropheo) is extremely important. It means not only to raise, but also carries with it the idea of personal attendance, that of being with the child to care for and to train. Furthermore, the word “brought up” indicates that the rearing takes place in the home. The noun form of “brought up,” trophia, means “brought up in the house, reared at home.” In other words, the good work of the widow in view is that she stayed at home to raise her children!
In Paul’s instructions to younger women, he admonishes them to marry and “bear children” (1 Tim. 5:14). To “bear children” means to bring them into the world, but also to nurture and train them. In another text, where Paul discusses the public ministry of the church, he says that women are not to teach but be in silence. However, he quickly points them to the place of ministry God has called them to — “childbearing” (1 Tim. 2:15). This word is a comprehensive term that comprehends all the duties of a mother — physical care, training, etc. — and could be translated as “motherhood.” Hiebert states:
“Childbearing” denotes the proper sphere in which woman finds the true fulfillment of her destiny. It speaks of the highest ideal of Christian womanhood. It brings out that which is noblest and best within her being. Paul’s thought naturally includes the training of children in a Christian home. It stands in opposition to the sphere of public teaching closed to her. ()
The motherly nurture of children in their physical and spiritual development is of utmost importance to the kingdom of God. The next generation of God’s servants is largely in her hands. If she is faithful in fulfilling her calling, God will highly honor her, and she shall be counted as one of the true heroes of the Faith.
Third, the wife is to manage the home. In Paul’s charge to the younger women, he exhorts them to “marry, bear children, guide the house . . .” (1 Tim. 5:14). The verb “guide” (oikodespotein) is an expressive term meaning to rule the household, to manage family affairs. It indicates that the sphere of a woman’s authority is the home (as opposed to the spheres of church and state). Furthermore, “guide” is a present infinitive indicating that managing the home is the wife’s constant occupation, her full-time job. In the Biblical description of the virtuous woman, we are told that “she looketh well to the ways of her household” (Pr. 31:27), meaning that she is a wise and diligent manager, supervising all aspects of family life. Additionally, the Scripture says that through her skill as a manager a wise woman secures the well-being of her household, while a foolish woman neglects her managerial responsibilities and her house comes to ruin (Pr. 14:1).
Thus the roles assigned to the married woman by God confirms that “keepers at home” refers to those who remain at home so that they might properly attend to their duties of caring for their family and managing its everyday affairs. When her duties are understood in all their scope and significance, it becomes clear that only by being “keepers at home” can a wife and mother fulfill her high calling from God to be a helper to her husband, a mother to her children, and a manager of her household.
What About the Virtuous Woman?
A common objection to the interpretation that to be “keepers at home” requires a married woman to confine her work, her “career,” to that of her home, is that the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 did not so confine herself. We are told that she was a “business woman” engaged in pursuits beyond the sphere of her own household, thus justifying the claim that a wife and mother is free to pursue employment and a career outside of the home. But the picture of Proverbs 31 is that of a woman managing her own household, not of a woman leaving the home for employment elsewhere. Actually, the portrayal of the virtuous woman provides strong support for the traditional interpretation of “keepers at home.” She is a wise manager of the resources her husband commits to her care (vv. 14, 16, 24). She is a true helper to her husband enabling him to rise to prominence (v. 11, 12, 23). She cares for the needs of her children and husband, assuring that they are well fed and well clothed (v. 15, 21). She sees that all their property is put to good use (v. 16). () She even engages in “cottage industry” by using any available time and strength to make fine linen and sashes to be sold to the merchants. ([r:>11])
May God be pleased to restore to the church the proper understanding of “keepers at home” so that the Christian family and the Christian church might once again benefit from having the wife and mother in the home filling it with her presence, love, care, and wisdom. We often speak of the home as being the foundational unit of both church and state. We often say, “As goes the family, so goes all else.” So let us give it the priority it deserves, and return the wife to her indispensable role of helping her husband, nurturing her children, and managing her household.
We know that a well-ordered home is one of life’s greatest treasures. So let us act accordingly, and return the jewel that truly makes the home a treasure. Let us obey God’s law when he commands the wife and mother to stay at home so that she can properly care for her family and manage her household. Let us give honor to “keepers at home” for to such much honor is due. Our hope for the future of the church and society rests, in large measure, with the virtuous women who are “keepers at home.”
The true sense of Proverbs 16:31 is not that she purchases real estate, but that she puts the family’s property to good use. The virtuous woman sees a field belonging to her husband that is either sitting idle or is not being used in the most profitable way. So she, literally, “takes” it (not “buys” it; see Hebrew text, and the center column reference of KJV), and sets it to good use by planting a vineyard there.
But she herself is not a merchant moving in the marketplace. She is a woman working out of her home under the authority of her husband (not some other man) to provide extra income for the family as she is able.
by William Einwechter, February 9, 2004